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Follow the people and the facts in “Silkwood”


A young Meryl Streep takes on the role of Karen Silkwood who works at Oklahoma's Kerr-McGee plant, and discoveries safety issues which leads to wholesale radiation poisoning of plant workers.

Frame shots courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics


Blu-ray; 1983; R for profanity, brief nudity and sexual contact

Best extra: Interview with producer Michael Hausman

"LEAKERS," to use today's vernacular, have never had an easy time of it. Most rarely begin as whistleblowers, alerting others to danger and criminal activities. Too many, like Karen Silkwood, end up paying the ultimate price.

The public is now very much aware of the dangers of atomic energy and nuclear power plants – mostly thanks to real life disasters at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979), Chernobyl in the Ukraine (1986), and the Fukushima Accident (2011) in Japan. We hear about it on the news, watch video footage and stare at photographs. Still, it's movies such as "The China Syndrome" (1979) and "Silkwood" (1983) that help put a face on these issues. "China Syndrome," premiering only 12 days before the Three Mile Island disaster, reveals a cover up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant. "Silkwood" is based on the real life story of Karen Silkwood, one of hundreds of blue collar workers at Oklahoma's Kerr-McGee plant, who discovered safety issues and the wholesale radiation poisoning of plant workers. She was killed one night in a suspicious one-car accident while on the way to a meeting with New York Times reporter David Burnham.

A young Meryl Streep takes on the role of Karen Silkwood, who is by no means a hard-charging investigator. Karen likes to party, loves to have fun and play pranks on her co-workers. She lives in a ramshackle house with her boyfriend/mechanic Drew (Kurt Russell) and lesbian buddy Dolly Pelliker (Cher). The film, directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, delves into her personality and home life. At work, we see the leaks and safety issues; we learn how plant negatives are doctored to hide flaws, but it isn't until Karen is contaminated by plutonium herself that she becomes actively concerned. She also becomes involved with Union representatives who urge her to explore dangers at the plant.

Karen has no cover, no refuge and no help. It doesn't take long before management and co-workers learn what she's up to. And rather than support the woman looking out for their safety, they turn on her because her findings might cost them their jobs. Management is, of course, motivated by greed, their workers only cannon fodder to the cause.

In a recent interview, producer Michael Hausman talks about how he visited the Oklahoma governor's office where a portrait of Kerr-McGee management was prominently displayed. Hausman hoped to get permission to film "Silkwood" in the state, but was refused. The movie was shot in Texas and New Mexico; the plant and its equipment were manufactured by the studio for the sets.

Karen lives in a ramshackle house with her boyfriend/mechanic Drew (Kurt Russell) and lesbian buddy Dolly Pelliker (Cher).

There's a heavy film grain on Kino Lorber's 1080p release, typical of the time. The film itself was not remastered for this release, but achieves a serviceable archival effect. Visuals look realistic including complexions, locations, set details and costumes. A two-channel HD soundtrack clearly delivers dialogue and the minimal effects. Extras include several versions of the trailer, but the clear winner is Hausman's interview in which he talks about making the movie and working with Nichols, Streep, Cher and Russell, whose love of motorcycles all but delivered heart failure to insurance reps.

Both "Silkwood" and "The China Syndrome" received several Oscar nominations and it's easy to see why. "Silkwood," with its fine performances and true story, holds up well, even if you recoil from the characters' naiveté. Just remember, there is always a first time when someone clues into trouble and finds the courage to speak up. Karen Silkwood's family sued Kerr-McGee after her death, settling out of court for $1.3 million. Kerr-McGee went out of business in 2006, and was sold to Anadarko Petroleum Corp.

— Kay Reynolds

Karen is told she has cancer and decides to meet with New York Times reporter David Burnham to tell her story.



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